Merstham 0 - 6 AFC Wimbledon
2004 Combined Counties League Champions AFC Wimbledon administered six of the best as they caned Merstham at the most hospitable venue in the division. A brace of goals from Gavin Bolger and sweet strikes from Kevin Cooper and Jamie Taylor in the first half were supplemented by first League goals for Gareth Graham and Paul Quinn in the second half, as the Dons tightened their stranglehold at the top of the table and further extended their unbeaten run to 40 matches for the season.
The hosts boasted considerable improvements to their ground since the Dons last visited, with a resplendent new clubhouse, turnstiles, dugouts and tall perimeter fencing but their team became the latest in a long line of opponents to be overwhelmed by the men from Kingsmeadow.
The first half was a pleasing spectacle during which some excellent pass and move football was played on one of the better pitches seen this season, though the referee's decisions often came frustratingly late or often not at all, firstly failing to award a corner to Wimbledon after a Merstham defender clearly had the last touch out of play as Small-King tried to shoot. The Dons brought the home keeper into action with a weak shot by Jamie Taylor who again tried to walk the ball into the net after collecting a returned pass from Gray. A Quinn cross picked out Small-King who fired straight at the keeper. Bassey was winning the midfield battles impressively, coming out on top both in aerial contests and full-blooded challenges, and he sprayed some delightful passes to the front runners repeatedly. After a brief foray by Merstham's Mark Hunter, who was given offside as he glanced a free header wide, Dons took the lead on 23 minutes. Cooper collected a pass from Bolger and produced a rasping shot on the turn, hitting the top corner of the net with the keeper resigned to his fate. Merstham tried hard to respond but their attacks were twice reduced by precisely measured Everard back headers to Standen in the Dons goal. The home side's Marc Rollins eventually broke clear of Lewis Taylor only to stumble and fall over in front of goal. Immediately, the ball was in the Merstham half and Quinn crossed to the far post, picking out the on-rushing Small-King who slammed a shot high and wide under pressure. On the half-hour mark Jamie Taylor finished off a sublime move involving himself, Cooper and Bolger, the latter setting up the coup de grace with a neat back-heel, for the Dons second. Cooper had a strong penalty appeal rejected as the referee remained non-committal, before Bolger supplied a nonchalant finish to a smooth pass from Small-King, who left two defenders trailing in his wake near the touchline with another display of power and ball control. Five minutes later, a Cooper flick set up Bolger for the fourth Dons goal, as the visiting team confirmed their superiority. Bassey tried in vain to get on the score-sheet with a diving header from a Gray cross, which went wide, before the whistle blew for half-time.
By the beginning of the second half the wind had picked up considerably and the game seemed to deteriorate accordingly. The referee overlooked another strong Wimbledon penalty appeal causing Cooper to thump the ground in exasperation. Bolger was taken off as Nicky English looked to give Gareth Graham an outing. The Dons were awarded a free-kick to ironic cheers after Small-King was felled outside the area, and Gray bent the kick around the wall into the expectant arms of the Merstham keeper. Gibson was then clattered by Merstham's Scott Sullivan directly in front of the dugouts, as English remonstrated with the ill-positioned referee, clearly incensed by his incompetence and failure to mete out discipline. Gibson would take no further part in proceedings and Oakins was introduced in his place. Yet another penalty appeal went unheeded for the Dons before Everard took the afternoon showboat award with an outrageous back-heel to clear his lines, attracting a ripple of laughter for his audacity. The tiger-ish Bassey won a corner which was punched clear by the keeper, only for Bassey to fire narrowly wide from outside the area. The Dons kept up the pressure as Graham flicked the ball over his shoulder, spun and sent a dangerous ball across the face of goal which just evaded Jamie Taylor.
Merstham dared to venture into the Dons half and Hunter fired over from 25 yards, then they enjoyed a rare corner after Oakins and Everard casually contrived to leave a clearance for Standen, who sliced horribly into touch. The kick evaded defenders and attackers alike and the Merstham right back sent an effort just over. The promising Lewis Taylor made a last-ditch slide tackle to prevent another Merstham corner before the Dons restored parity. A well-struck shot by Gray was beaten out by the keeper and Cooper did well to keep the ball in play before teeing up Graham to finish from close range for the Dons fifth goal.
A calf problem enforced the departure of Bassey, and Dobinson took his place just in time to witness the sixth and final goal, Quinn whipping in a cross from the by-line which curled just inside the far post with the keeper distracted by the lurking Cooper and the close attention of Dobinson.
In the dying moments of the match, Small-King was pulled back by two defenders but the resultant free-kick went straight to the keeper, who later made an excellent point-blank range save from a Cooper snap-shot, and Gray sent another effort just over the crossbar with the keeper back-pedalling.
This result leaves the Dons on course to finish the season with a record points and goals haul and cements the claims of Nicky English to the managerial reigns of the club. For the supporters, dreams of cup finals and prospective away days to Newport I.O.W. and Tooting and Mitcham next season are prevalent. Exciting times lie ahead for the club that the fans built!